From the days when communities tended to have their own local musicians to play for social dancing, Blakeney blacksmith Herbert Smith stands out as a wonderful example of a traditional rural musician whose influence, as a result of a handful of recordings1, has extended considerably further than his time and community.
Herbert Ernest Smith was born in Blakeney on 8th September, 1892, into a large family of blacksmiths. School records show that he attended Blakeney School from 1896. As was the case with all family members, he was known as 'Curry Smith', a kind of double-barrelled surname as his grandfather Robert Smith married Mary Curry in 1855.
The family were well established as blacksmiths in the village, with several smithies there and one in Binham. Herbert's father, James Curry Smith (born 1868), was listed in a commercial directory as being located in New Road, Blakeney, as 'Smith, James Curry and Son blacksmiths, agricultural and general smiths, pump work, hot and cold water engineers and sheet metal workers; ornamental work forged'. The business produced wrought iron work for the church and was also called upon to re-lead the roof when necessary. They were also engineers to the tug Comet which towed ships belonging to the Page and Turner Company in and out of the channel, having a forge on the quayside for the purpose. In addition, the Smiths were closely related to the Brighty family, who were also blacksmiths in the village.
When James Curry Smith died on 23rd December, 1940, Herbert took over the business, continuing it until he retired due to ill-health in the late 1950s, the last blacksmith in the village. During the First World War, he and his brother Jimmy had been army farriers. In addition to blacksmithing work, the brothers had a large plot of land at the top of the village, and ran a thriving market garden business as well as keeping pigs.
Herbert was certainly active as a musician for dances, playing the fiddle and sometimes playing with another fiddler, Blakeney builder Emmerson Shorting (1853-1937). Daisy Callender of Holt (Mr Shorting's granddaughter) recalls them both playing in the granary on the quayside in 1918 at a benefit dance for soldiers wounded in the Great War. The granary was much used as a dance hall, before and after The Blakeney Hotel was built in the early 1920s. An undated article of memories of the early Twentieth Century recollects that there were dances in the Manor House Barn: "dancing to the music of two fiddles and an accordion, reels and step (country) dances were enjoyed by the men alone at first, the women joining in when supper had been cleared up." It is highly likely that the two fiddlers were Herbert Smith and Emmerson Shorting and possible that the accordion player was Horace Brighty (born 1880), who later played regularly in Bale Oak.
Herbert was still an active musician in the early 1950s. The Norfolk Chronicle of February 3rd, 1950, mentions him playing the fiddle to accompany Mrs Wordingham, step dancing at an old folks' party when over 80 years old! In 1952, Peter Kennedy recorded his fiddle playing for the BBC, when on an expedition to collect examples of the musical traditions of the British Isles, which it was then assumed were in terminal decline.
These recorded tunes give an insight into Herbert's musical repertoire. The jigs Rig-a-Jig-Jig, Starry Night For A Ramble2 and Tommy Make Room For Your Uncle were used for country dances, in particular the local variant of the Long Dance. Rig-a-Jig-Jig seems unique to the North Norfolk coastal area, the only other recorded version being from Ann Mary Bullimore of neighbouring Morston, the landlady of The Anchor, who played it on the piano in the room on the side of the pub which served as a dance hall. She described the Long Dance to Peter Kennedy: "And you'd each take your partner, and you'd form a long row, like you do Sir Roger de Coverley. And then you start off; the bottom four would set across the hands and jig round, and then when the second part of the tune came, the bottom two would take hold of hands and run right up to the end of the rows and back again. Well, after you'd done three or four sets, about the fifth pair up would start again, so at the finish you'd four or five couples would jump the dance up and down together. See what I mean? That was how it was done. Well, we used to go on 'til everybody'd had a turn and you'd got right up to the top, and each time you'd finish one up, but when you got to the top you'd finish one down. See, each time. The partner next to you used to go either up or down, so that you all got a turn in time, running up and down the middle." The Long Dance was very popular throughout the county, with numerous variants.
Starry Night For A Ramble and Tommy Make Room For Your Uncle were unusual variants of popular songs pressed into service as dance tunes. Starry Night was very well used throughout the county, but Herbert's version is considerably different from the more well-known one collected by Joan Roe from Mr Newstead of Wickmere in 1932, which has passed into common currency with country dance bands everywhere. Tommy Make Room For Your Uncle 3 has also been collected in several variants in Norfolk and once again this version is very different from that collected in Hindringham from Lotte Thompson by Ann-Marie Hulme and Peter Clifton in the 1970s.
The remaining tunes consist of a selection of what would be expected in a country musician's repertoire, often in unusual versions. The Four Hand Reel was used for the country dance of the same name, which Herbert Smith described thus: "The Four Hand Reel consisted of four of them and they would compete against each other, make from corner to corner; and they would reverse over from one corner to the other they'd go round and make a reel of it, you see They would go round; after the corners they would go round and get into the corners again. Why they call it the reel; well, they reel off, d'you see."
The Blakeney Hornpipe 4 was probably used to accompany step dancing and is closely related to The Lass On The Strand and The Breakdown. Also present is the ubiquitous Heel And Toe Polka and the East Anglian favourite Oh Joe,The Boat Is Going Over (another song tune converted into a dance one) 5, preceded by an unidentified polka tune. Herbert also had a beautiful variant of the tune for the waltz Varsovienna6 and a very unusual tune for the Highland Schottische dance, which became very popular nationwide from the middle of the nineteenth century. To the best of my knowledge this tune seems to have been recorded from nobody else.
Herbert Smith was obviously a very experienced musician with some wonderful and unique versions of country dance tunes. Unfortunately we have little evidence of his full repertoire from these nine BBC recordings, although Daisy Callender recalls him playing Sailor's Hornpipe and Golden Slippers with her grandfather. His playing style, highly rhythmic and relatively unadorned, was perfectly suited to accompany country dancing. In comparison with other fiddlers from Norfolk, he seems not to have had a wide repertoire of popular song tunes to be played in the pub, as did Alfred "Fiddler" Brown of Scarning; neither did he play in a fairly large dance band, such as Walter Bulwer's Time And Rhythm band of Shipdham. He seems mainly to have played solo or together with fellow fiddler Emmerson Shorting, a man forty years his senior and from whom he may well have learned both style and repertoire. As did many older country fiddlers, Herbert tuned his fiddle down a tone from concert pitch, at least for the BBC recordings.
As well as country dances, song contests seem to have been a regular occurrence in the area, as Herbert Smith describes: "Sometimes he would say, "Well," he said, "I've got a pound to throw away," he say, "for a singing competition," he said; and those who'd like to enter for it; and of course they'd go for the show of hands for the judges, who was the best song and the best singin'. And once there at Morston, y'know, they wouldn't let me sing. He said, "We shall have to bar Smith," he said. "He mustn't come in this." They cut me out! I think Dickerson, Jimmy Dickerson, and three or four more, all belonged to Morston And I think he won it, Dickerson did. Of course, more often than not, they'd spend the money what they'd got in drink, y'know, for the whole of the company, then they'd carry along. They'd have three or four dances, then probably they'd have a song in between, you see. Then they'd keep it up 'til about probably sometimes as late as two or three, two o'clock in the morning." This suggests that Herbert was a fine singer as well as fiddler. Both Jimmy and Billy Dickerson7, farm workers from Morston, were highly regarded as singers.
Herbert was not the only musical member of the family however. His sister Sarah (born 1896) sang and played piano in The Ship and his brother George played the mandolin, leaving it behind when he emigrated to Australia in 1940. In addition, most of the family was involved in the church choir for a great many years.
A stroke in the late 1950s meant that Herbert had to give up the blacksmithing work. He went to live in the ex-servicemen's houses in Mousehold, Norwich. On Boxing Day, 1961, he went to watch a football match but felt unwell. He died later the same day, at home, aged 69.
Chris Holderness - 5.6.06
Rig-a-Jig-Jig A Norfolk Music History Project
In the above old postcard of Blakeney village band, undated but seemingly taken before the First World War, the following members are known: the seated man with violin second from right is Herbert Smith; the bearded man standing at the right is Emmerson Shorting (probably the band's leader); and the tall man third from left in the back row (discounting the bass player standing to the side) is Herbert Pye. Unfortunately nobody has been able to identify the other members. Any readers with further information about any of the participants should please contact Chris Holderness at: email@example.com
[Since the original BBC recordings are not of the highest quality, being some 54 years old, and Herbert Smith's fiddle tone is pretty harsh, the RealAudio sound clips I normally use really don't do justice to his playing. So in this instance I'm using MP3 clips, which give a much better account of his music - although they are far bigger, and so will take longer to download - Ed.]
|Blakeney Hornpipe||Four Hand Reel||Heel and Toe Polka|
|Highland Schottische||Oh, Joe, the Boat ...||Starry Night for a Ramble|
|Rig-a-Jig-Jig||Tommy Make Room||Varsovienna|
2. For a version of the song see The Ploughboy's Song in I Walked By Night: Frederick Rolfe, ed, Lilias Rider Haggard (Nicholson and Watson, 1935)
3. Noted in EFDSS Folk Music Journal: Vol 3, No 4, 1978: Social Dancing in a Norfolk Village 1900-1945 Ann-Marie Hulme and Peter Clifton.
4. A good comparison is gypsy fiddler Harry Lee: The Breakdown on Boscastle Breakdown Topic LP 12T240 and My Father's The King Of The Gypsies CD TSCD661.
5. Harry Green of Tilty, Essex, sings a complete version of the song on Veteran cassette VT135: Old Songs And Folk Songs From Essex. See also Mike Yates' article Oh Joe The Boat Is Going Over But Which Boat? www.kyloerecords.co.uk/Articles/OhJoe.htm
6. Herbert Smith's B music is uncommon but is similar to that played by Scan Tester, although he plays a different A music: I Never Played To Many Posh Dances Topic LPs 12T455/6 or Veteran cassettes VTVS03/04
7. Billy Dickerson's singing can be heard on Ftx328 as above, and on Ftx017: Songs Of Seduction and an example of his dialect speech is on Ftx452: Dialects And Customs: The Midlands and Eastern England.